Inside CCN’s Smear Campaign Against SLO Progressives

From left to right: Cristin Powers, Karen Velie, and Summer Awbrey (Velie photo by David Middlecamp of The Tribune). Photo illustration by SLO Truth.

UPDATE: Powers responded to the column, stating she did not attend the March 23 meeting due to her job schedule. Powers states that she is not spying as her mother, Karen Velie.

On March 30, the Coalition for Labor, Agriculture & Business (COLAB) held their annual dinner and fundraiser at the Madonna Expo Center. The event was titled “Celebrate Success – Reinforce Reform.” According to the organization’s weekly update newsletter and advertisements on CalCoastNews (CCN), COLAB’s event listed county supervisors Debbie Arnold, Lynn Compton and John Peschong as their featured speakers.

Having three supervisors out of five in attendance is considered a quorum. Had every supervisor showed up to talk about county issues within the board’s jurisdiction, that would’ve constituted a Brown Act (open meetings law) violation. Peschong ultimately bowed out of the event, stating he was scheduled to travel elsewhere that day.

Prior to learning that Peschong canceled his appearance, the local media was interested in covering the event. Not every day do you have a quorum of conservative supervisors appearing at a $120-per-person fundraiser held by an organization that’s politically aligned with team. When the New Times’ Chris McGuinness asked COLAB Government Affairs Director Mike Brown about allowing the press into the event, Brown stated the press was not invited.

Brown told the New Times that the the fundraiser would be a  “big social event,” adding that an  “abundance of caution” would be taken to avoid Brown Act issues.

“It’s going to be me talking and praising them,” he wrote to McGuinness. “They are not going to have the opportunity to interact in that way.”

In other words, “Trust me. I got this.” It’s difficult to trust Brown and his interpretation of the Brown Act when he thought it was acceptable to yell “point of order” at a Board of Supervisors meeting when he disagreed with a county supervisor. That actually happened in January, and he was escorted out of the chambers by a Sheriff’s deputy for doing so.

But there’s another reason why it’s difficult to trust Brown, who emphatically insisted the press was not allowed. SLO Truth learned from two sources who attended the fundraiser that one member of the so-called “press” was invited: CCN co-founder Karen Velie.

Velie, who just last month lost a defamation lawsuit filed against her and the website, reportedly sat next to District 4 Supervisor Lynn Compton. Throughout Compton’s 2014 supervisor campaign, CCN regularly targeted her then-opponent and incumbent Caren Ray. The website even lists Compton as one of their contributors, though the only article Compton contributed was a statement sent to the entire media.

According to BOS meeting minutes, Compton made no attempt to recuse herself when the board discussed Velie’s federal lawsuit against District 3 Supervisor Adam Hill in closed session. Though her federal lawsuit was dismissed with prejudice in January, Velie re-filed in Superior Court and appealed the federal judge’s dismissal. The Superior Court case remains active.

Since she was invited to the COLAB fundraiser, Velie wrote two articles about the Board of Supervisors. The first article, “Convicted polluter and politicos battle over water basin control,” was April 3. In the article, Velie accuses the left-leaning SLO Progressives group of becoming a “vocal advocate for large land owners,” but she doesn’t offer evidence to show that they are. However, she mentions some of the land owners by name, including Stewart and Linda Resnick and Mike Cervi. In 2005, Cervi was convicted of tampering with monitoring equipment to hide leaks from an oil well that was polluting the aquifer.

Using the “guilt by association” trope, Velie alleged that county supervisors Bruce Gibson and Hill continued supporting Cervi and others along with their plans to form “several water districts” throughout the Paso Robles groundwater basin. Again, she doesn’t specify how Gibson and Hill personally support the Resnicks and Cervi, the “convicted polluter” Velie was referring to.

Velie also touched on allegations of Brown Act violations that were first levied by Paso Robles resident Laurie Gage on March 16. Gage claimed to have received a redacted letter from Creston resident Greg Grewal, who reportedly discussed having various confidential conversations with county supervisors about their positions on groundwater basin management. According to Grewal, the recipient of the letter was Cervi. Gibson and Hill pushed for an investigation with the District Attorney over the letter, which possibly revealed a “serial meeting” Brown Act violation. A serial meeting is when a series of individual contacts by government officials, even through a third party, leads to discussion, deliberation or action among a majority of members of a legislative body.

On April 4, the board voted 3-2 to not investigate themselves. Later that same meeting, the board voted 3-2 for the county to manage groundwater basins in unincorporated and “fringe” areas at the cost of $6.1 to $8.6 million. Proponents of the vote argued it was necessary to prevent the state from taking over groundwater management. Opponents of the vote, including members of the SLO Progressives, criticized the decision, stating that it would force county ratepayers into subsidizing other basins they don’t rely on, and other county ratepayers to be taxed twice.

Propaganda and Infiltration: A Family Affair

Under her own article from April 3, Velie took aim at the SLO Progressives as user “JordanJ. That account echoed unsubstantiated conspiracy theories that Velie later published in her articles in verbatim. In Oct. 2015, Velie inadvertently revealed herself as “JordanJ,” stating she met a board member of a nonprofit led by Hill’s wife Dee Torres-Hill. At the time, former SLO Housing Connection board member Toni L. Higgins stated that she met with Velie at her office to discuss the nonprofit; no other current or former board members met with her personally.

“In their emails to members, the SLO Progressives have a priority to remove Lynn Compton from office,” wrote Velie as “JordanJ.” She added, “They talk about having their members make allegations and behave as social media trolls to push their rhetoric.

“Do they think most of the public are uniformed dummies they can manipulate? Why not just be honest and upfront with their agenda?” Velie asked.

Around the time Velie made those comments anonymously, an anonymous account named “Samantha Joan” appeared on The Tribune’s website to echo specific allegations made by Velie, including the unsubstantiated claim that Gibson, Hill and SLO Progressives support big vineyard owners. Last year, I reported that “Joan” is one of several anonymous Facebook accounts connected to Summer Awbrey, Velie’s 38-year-old daughter.

In comments dated March 29 on The Tribune, “Joan” decried the SLO Progressive’s “well-orchestrated misinformation campaign led by [Tribune columnist] Tom Fulks, Adam Hill, Bruce Gibson and their followers.” Joan claimed the organization was led by Hill, Gibson and Fulks (it’s not) and that Hill and Gibson were “lobbying for Stewart Resnick, Justin Vineyards and several other big ag enterprises that have raped the small farmers in other counties.” One of Awbrey’s accounts, “Robert Mason,” previously defended COLAB in March 2015, and criticized Tribune columnist Tom Fulks for knocking COLAB, which she described as “a group formed to provide a watch over government after farmers were harmed because of votes they knew nothing about, for having a yearly fundraiser.”

“Joan” wrapped up her comment, stating “the SLO Progresive [sic] sheep will do whatever is asked of them without question or research. It is sad for our community.”

“Are people so ignorant that they follow like sheep and refuse to research?” wrote a user named “CrisPow” on CalCoastNews on April 7.

“CrisPow” is the shortened form of Cristin Powers, Velie’s 36-year-old daughter.

Powers, a writer for CCN, was at the epicenter of a conspiracy theory hatched by CCN in 2013. Shortly after Velie was arrested for suspicion of driving under the influence, Powers’ children were taken into Child Welfare Services custody and temporarily placed in foster care. CCN alleged Powers’ children were removed from their home because it was “dirty.” They claimed the children weren’t returned to her because she was diagnosed as “bipolar” and was “depressed” following the deaths of relatives. Velie claimed she couldn’t get custody because of “personality issues” and her decision to publish previously confidential case records on her website. CCN strongly insinuated the children were confiscated as a result of Velie’s reporting on county issues, specifically ones surrounding Supervisor Hill and his wife. Velie reunited with her grandchildren later that year, though she never showed that county officials conspired to confiscate them because of her reporting.

In mid-April, several SLO Progressive members reported receiving a friend request from someone named “Cris Powers” on Facebook. A cursory review of the account showed that “Cris Powers” was, in fact, Cristin Powers using a secondary account. The account lists her birthday as July 22, 1980, which matches with Powers’ personal records on a free background check.

In the past, Velie and her daughters have attempted to befriend their targets to monitor their social media activity and mine data, including personal photos and posts.

Witnesses reported seeing Powers at the SLO Progressives meeting on March 23. However, Powers denies attending due to her job schedule. Powers joined the club’s members-only Facebook group until members were alerted of her relationship with Velie and CCN.

No Longer Press, No Longer News

It’s time to move past the notion that CCN is a news outlet. The $1.1 million guilty verdict, which they’re now contesting, has rendered their journalism illegitimate. It’s more accurate to consider them political operatives.

In their April 13 issue, the New Times published a comprehensive cover story on CCN and asked readers if their work is “fit to print.” We know the answer, and we should all move past that question. Journalists don’t work with their children to publish anonymous, defamatory propaganda and infiltrate a political organization under false and deceptive pretenses. Cristin Powers clearly wasn’t joining SLO Progressives because she identified with their message and core values.

If COLAB is full of good, hardworking people as Morro Bay fisherman Jeremiah O’Brien wrote in his Tribune letter to the editor, why would they — or any nonprofit organization or business — want to be associated with Velie and her disastrous, particularly unhinged brand?